Huge weekend for the Florida Panthers, as Aaron Ekblad returns

Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler (17) tries to control the puck under pressure from Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant watched the Chicago Blackhawks leave Tampa Bay a frustrated hockey club: Losing a close game to the team they defeated for the Stanley Cup last season, and seeing their 12-game winning streak snapped. 

So the Blackhawks will arrive in Sunrise with a bit of an edge for their game on Friday night. 

“I can’t worry about what Chicago’s going to bring tonight,” he said. “I gotta worry about my team.”

His team has lost three straight games, and are on an 0-3-1 skid overall. They face the Blackhawks on Friday night, and then have an even bigger battle looming on Saturday night: The Tampa Bay Lightning, whose seven-game winning streak has them breathing down the Panthers’ collective neck.

But there’s a mitigating circumstance for the Panthers’ recent downtick in success: Aaron Ekblad.

The Florida defenseman has been out of the lineup for that 0-3-1 slump after getting rocked by Matt Hendricks of the Edmonton Oilers. His return to the lineup couldn’t come at a better time, as their lead over the Lightning atop the Atlantic is one point.  

"I didn't think we were going to miss him that much but we did,'' Jaromir Jagr told the Miami Herald. "Not only is he great defensively, but he helps offensively. That's what you need when you're losing a game, everyone needs to help offensively. And he's one of those guys can do it.''

While Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson are back for the Panthers, Willie Mitchell hits the IR. (One more bit of lineup intrigue: Brandon Pirri, getting big interest on the trade market, is a healthy scratch, although Gallant says it’s not trade-related.)

These games will be a solid test for the Panthers. The good news is that even if they continue to stumble, the All-Star break looms after Tuesday’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But one assumes they’d like to more than get saved by the bell at the end of the round.


Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.